Pressure-packed: Contenders increasingly becoming sack-religious

IRVING, Texas -- An NFL cycle often unfolds this way: Defenses start the season ahead of offenses. Then offenses gradually build and click.

Not this season. Defenses are primed to have the final say.

We saw it in Baltimore, where the Pittsburgh Steelers hounded Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco in a 13-9 slugfest. We saw it in Atlanta, where the Falcons bullied their way to a 13-10 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, sacking Brian Griese four times. It was clear in New York, where defensive end Shaun Ellis' 11-yard fumble return for a touchdown with 1:54 left gave the Jets a 31-27 victory over the Buffalo Bills.

And we saw it here, where the Dallas Cowboys used eight sacks of Eli Manning to spark a stirring 20-8 victory over the New York Giants.

Chicago Bears receivers coach Darryl Drake was able to scope Sunday's defensive menu since his team was idle, having defeated the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night.

"I saw several teams with really good front fours putting a lot of pressure on quarterbacks," Drake said. "These guys on the line are bigger and faster and stronger. They are getting harder to block. They are really cranking it up. I see a lot of defenses really starting to jell.

"From a protection standpoint, it's much tougher. You are having to keep more backs in to block or chip the rushers, and that's sometimes one less guy out as a pass option, one less hot read. This is putting more pressure on quarterback's decision-making and accuracy. As we wind down the regular season, more offenses, I believe, will struggle."

Thus, pressure, quarterback hurries and hits are increased defensive goals. And the sack is back as an indicator of who's going to the postseason.

Consider that the NFL's top 10 teams in sacks have winning records. Three (Steelers, Giants and Titans) already are division champions. Three others (Vikings, Jets and Panthers) are division leaders. One (Dolphins) remains a division title contender. The other three (Cowboys, Eagles and Ravens) are viable wild-card suitors.

Dallas tops them all with 53 sacks.

"DeMarcus (Ware) and I talked all week about flipping to different sides, about what that could bring playing off each other when we switch, and that helped us pull things together," Cowboys linebacker Greg Ellis said after Ware's imposing seven-tackle, three-sack, three-quarterback hurry, two-forced fumble show against the Giants. "The defense did it as a whole. Nobody in here on our defense is out there playing by themselves. Our defense right now is locking in on playing good, disruptive football."

And they're doing it with coach Wade Phillips becoming more active in the play-calling, coordination and game-planning of the defense. The Cowboys also received sacks from Ellis (2), defensive end Chris Canty (1.5), linebacker Bradie James (1) and linebacker Anthony Spencer (0.5).

"Wade has a gift at bringing another guy, the right guy, on blitzes to get to that quarterback," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. "And it is not always just about DeMarcus Ware. Wade used a variety against the Giants that showed what we are capable of doing in getting sacks and pressure."

Added Dallas defensive end Marcus Spears: "I think you're just seeing a defense that's turning the corner. We put a little emphasis on trying to win the football game on the defensive side of the ball. We want to be recognized as one of the best defenses in the league."

Against the Giants, in this matchup, mission accomplished.

"Y'all surprised?" Spears asked.

Well, yes, we are. This Cowboys defense is suddenly motivated.

This Sunday, when the teams with the best records in each conference meet, sacks, quarterback pressure and hurries will dramatically color the outcomes. The Carolina Panthers are at the Giants. Both own 11-3 records and feature pressure defenses. Pittsburgh (11-3) is at Tennessee (12-2). Both are molded to be stout and striking up front. The Titans likely will be without injured defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, and losing him for an extended period would be a colossal blow to Tennessee's championship chances.

Ask the Cowboys. Losing Ware would be their equivalent to Haynesworth's loss to the Titans.

Now Dallas' offense hopes to become a complement to the defense.

"We have a great football team and a great defensive team," quarterback Tony Romo said. "They are starting to play at a high level. We can just try to do what it takes to put some points on the board, and I like our chances if we continue to play both sides of the ball."

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